Cardinal Ritter's college-bound rates 'a game-changer'

Lisa Johnston |

Positive news greets visitors approaching the entrance to Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School on North Spring Avenue in Midtown St. Louis.

The banner above the front doors touts the school's 11 state sports championships, including its Class 3 basketball title last season. And the school recently won the Class 2, District 2 title in the state football playoffs.

Those are just the school's sporting achievements. Successes in academia are off the charts, impossible to top -- as in, a 100-percent graduation rate and a 100-percent college-bound rate.

And for the little cherry on top, Cardinal Ritter students participated among four teams in the Constitution Project on Nov. 12 in Jefferson City, hoping to improve on a second-place finish last year. They did, bringing home first with Cameron Caldwell as best attorney.

With such successes in academics and athletics, Cardinal Ritter has its mission of educating African-American students "pretty much down to a science," according to school president Tamiko Armstead.

Cardinal Ritter's successes played a large role in Emerson Electric Co. choosing the school to be among recipients of $4.4 million in grants toward education in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting death in Ferguson. Cardinal Ritter will receive $400,000 over the next four years -- $100,000 per year -- to fund scholarships; tuition costs about $8,000 a year at Cardinal Ritter.

Emerson has been a major donor to the school for years and was a key player in the capital campaign to develop the Midtown campus, which opened in 2003 after years in the former Laboure High School in the Walnut Park area of north St. Louis. So, there already was a connection, but Cardinal Ritter's successes cemented its standing when it came time to award the grants.

"They wanted programs that are working with children and have some really positive results," said Armstead, who called graduation and college-bound rates "a game-changer. They said, 'Let's go with a program that's already proven.'"

Cardinal Ritter's enrollment is about 230 students, with roughly 40 percent living in Ferguson or north St. Louis County. Although Cardinal Ritter campus is about 10 miles from the site of the shooting and unrest that followed, the 40 percent figure puts many students right in the thick of things.

Senior Eric Davis Jr. is closer than most. Brown was his second cousin.

"It's really sad what happened, but at the same time, this whole event has brought our family closer together, even people who had things between them in the past," said Davis, who has attended every march and rally in his cousin's name.

Students are anxiously awaiting the grand jury decision whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson in Brown's shooting death. "Some people say if the decision isn't what they want, there's going to be trouble," said Jullian Snipes, a senior at Cardinal Ritter. "It's been a lot of talk, but you really don't know what's going to happen."

Junior Karrington Tipler, who lives in Ferguson and graduated from Our Lady of Guadalupe School, described driving on West Florissant as "scary. ... You see a lot of buildings boarded up because of what happened last time. No one wants that to happen, but it may happen."

On Nov. 17 and 18, Cardinal Ritter hosted a "Play for Peace," a presentation dedicated to Malala Yousafzai -- the winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize at age 17, the youngest winner ever. The play included the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama and Blessed Mother Teresa among eight featured Noble Prize winners. With Ferguson ruling pending, the timing of play was apropos.

Regardless of what happens, Cardinal Ritter students, faculty and staff are like many others in the area wanting to get beyond the events surrounding the grand jury ruling. They want to get on with the school's mission of educating African-American students, something it is very good at, as was evident to Armstead on the first day of class this year at a panel discussion involving alumni from the school's inception in 1979 through last year.

"What was so amazing is that (the alums) tell the same story, what Ritter did for them," said Armstead, a Cardinal Ritter graduate, and now in her first year back at the school after 19 years at Edward Jones. "That was the constant, and it was pretty reassuring."

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